The Hidden Roots of America's Baby Bust | Crooked Media
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May 18, 2024
What A Day
The Hidden Roots of America's Baby Bust

In This Episode

Birth rates are plummeting around the world and no one has cracked the code on how to get people to have babies. More money, free daycare, and medical advances don’t appear to help…and criminalizing abortion DEFINITELY doesn’t help. This week on How We Got Here, Erin and Max break down how the 20th century baby boom is misremembered, the factors responsible for declining birth rates today, and whether anything can be done about it.





Understanding the Baby Boom – Works in Progress

German birth rate drops steeply against backdrop of unease – DW – 03/20/2024

Italy’s falling birth rate is a crisis that’s only getting worse | Euronews

South Korea’s birth rate is so low, the president wants to create a ministry to tackle it | CNN

Romania’s abortion ban was deadly for women and is a warning for U.S. – The Washington Post

El Salvador (CIA)

El Salvador: Court Hears Case on Total Abortion Ban | Human Rights Watch

Alarm as South Korea sees more deaths than births

Work–life balance – Government of Sweden

U.S. Fertility Rate Falls to Record Low – WSJ

A World Without Men: Inside South Korea’s 4B Movement

Everything you need to know about artificial wombs

Can Immigration Solve the Demographic Dilemma? – IMF F&D





Max Fisher: Erin. Is it just me, or does it seem like there’s a doom and gloom article about the dangers of a falling birthrate like every few days?


Erin Ryan: Max, are you messing with me right now? Like, you know, this is one of my favorite topics. 


Max Fisher: I am not messing with you, I promise. 


Erin Ryan: Okay, fine. I’ll bite. No, it is not your imagination. The U.S. fertility rate has decreased to 1.6 children per woman. 


Max Fisher: Which, according to this napkin math, is less than the replacement rate. 


Erin Ryan: You’re doing birth rate napkin math? What?


Max Fisher: Don’t worry about it. 


Erin Ryan: Okay, fine. This 1.6 children per woman thing means that if people don’t start having more babies, in less than two decades, there will be more old people than young people in the U.S.. 


Max Fisher: Which, although probably the best case scenario for Werther’s hard candy sales, is a big problem for the economy as a whole. 


Erin Ryan: But the real puzzler is that this isn’t just an American problem. All over the world, countries are facing similar demographic collapse as they struggle to convince or cajole people into having more babies, and nobody’s cracked it yet. 


Max Fisher: Everybody’s got theories, but nobody’s got solutions. What are they all missing? [music break] I’m Max Fisher. 


Erin Ryan: I’m Erin Ryan. This is How We Got Here. The show that each week asks one big question behind the headlines and tells a story that answers that question. 


Max Fisher: This week, are humans the new giant pandas? Just kidding. If only we as a species were that cute and roly poly. 


Erin Ryan: Have you seen the panda enclosure at the San Diego Zoo? 


Max Fisher: Oh it’s great. 


Erin Ryan: It’s nicer than my house. Uh. Seriously, though, in the years post pandemic, countries around the world have seen a precipitous drop in their birth rates. So our question is, why has that been so hard to solve? 


Max Fisher: Governments around the world really seem to be throwing spaghetti at the wall, trying to come up with solutions. 


Erin Ryan: Even in Italy, where throwing spaghetti at the wall is not something to be done lightly. 


Max Fisher: [laugh] Let’s get this out of the way first. Humans not reproducing fast enough is only a problem if you’re looking at things from certain socioeconomic perspectives. 


Erin Ryan: Right. If you asked say, a sea turtle or a timberwolf, their opinion about the human population being on track to decline within the next couple of centuries, they’d probably be fine with it. 


Max Fisher: Perpetual human population growth isn’t sustainable environmentally, at least not without also fixing, say, our reliance on fossil fuels. 


Erin Ryan: However, as birth rates decline, it presents hard challenges for policymakers and governments when there are too many old people and not enough young people, that creates what’s known as an unfavorable dependency ratio. 


Max Fisher: Ah. 


Erin Ryan: Too many people aging out of the workforce and not enough working age people to support them and pay into social welfare programs for them. 


Max Fisher: And not to defend US House Speaker Mike Johnson. But I think that’s the point he was clumsily trying to make when he said this. 


[clip of US House Speaker Mike Johnson] Your class should have been twice as large, or maybe a third larger than it was. Your classmates were not allowed to be born. You think about the implications of that on the economy. We’re all struggling here to to cover the bases of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and all the rest. If we had all those able bodied workers in the economy, we wouldn’t be going upside down and toppling over like this. Listen–


[clip of unspecified person speaking to Mike Johnson] The gentleman [?]–


[clip of US House Speaker Mike Johnson] I will not yield, I will not. 


Erin Ryan: Okay, I’d say that crossed over from clumsy to straight up creepy. 


Max Fisher: The GOP special. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah. Blaming women for choosing not to have children rather than the circumstances that led them to make that choice. But regardless, something that’s been missing in most of the birth rate discourse, creepy and non creepy, is that there was a time not that long ago in the grand scheme, when the fertility rate actually increased dramatically over a relatively short period of time. 


Max Fisher: Oh yeah. Okay, let me guess. We’re going to talk about the baby boom. All those soldiers returning home from World War two so excited the war was over, they couldn’t help but get everybody pregnant. 


Erin Ryan: That’s the story we’ve been told. But the so-called baby boom of mid-century America and elsewhere actually started in the decade before World War Two ended, and it was preceded by a century long decline in the birth rate. 


Max Fisher: Huh? So there was actually a previous long decline in the birth rate, kind of like the one today, about a century ago. Which means if we can decipher what reversed that old baby bust, then maybe we’re closer to solving the one happening today?


Erin Ryan: Exactly. But also, easier said than done. 


Max Fisher: So let’s start with the history and work our way forward. 


Erin Ryan: Okay. Between 1800 and 1915, the number of children born per woman across the US and several European countries declined slowly. At first, people were still having enough kids on average to more than replace the old people. 


Max Fisher: What do demographers think was behind that? 


Erin Ryan: Well, in general, when income and education increase, birth rates go down, the industrial revolution meant higher wages and more widespread access to education. And as people’s quality of life improved, having more kids became less appealing. 


Max Fisher: Oh, and leaving the workforce to care for children would have a higher cost. Plus, if you can afford a comfortable lifestyle, well, too many kids can kind of mess that up. 


Erin Ryan: Right.


Max Fisher: I would also think that more access to early education would make people better equipped to decide when they do and don’t get pregnant. 


Erin Ryan: Yes, there is a lot of evidence that across societies, higher rates of primary and secondary education lead to big drops in the teenage birthrate. The more you know about what pregnancy and parenting will do to you, the less likely you’re going to choose it. 


Max Fisher: All of which, I’m sure people were very calm and normal about when this first started happening. 


Erin Ryan: No, unfortunately, they were in fact very racist about it. In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt said that Americans deciding to have fewer children was, quote, “the one sin for which the penalty is national death” and, quote, “race death.” 


Max Fisher: Yikes. Okay, so people have always freaked out about the birth rate. 


Erin Ryan: After 1915, that slow decline became a fast decline. By the 1920s, America and more than half of Europe had birth rates below that magical 2.1 children per woman number. 


Max Fisher: You know, for my entire life, I’d been told that the end of World War Two led to this big baby boom because all the soldiers came home and I guess, celebrated. But what you’re saying is making me realize that that can’t be right, because then the same thing would have happened after World War One. But the opposite happened. The birth rate went down. 


Erin Ryan: But then in the mid 1930s, something happened. The birth rate started increasing rather suddenly. Across Europe and the US. 


Max Fisher: Wait, before World War Two even started?


Erin Ryan: Yeah, and it didn’t matter what side you were going to be on during the war, either. Neutral countries like Sweden, future allied countries like France and, well, Germany all saw birth rates go up. 


Max Fisher: Erin, you are blowing my mind right now. Everything I have been told about the postwar baby boom was a lie? What? That’s wild. So if it wasn’t actually caused by victorious soldiers coming home, what was it? 


Erin Ryan: Before we get to the most likely reason for this, let’s discuss some theories that come apart under scrutiny. First, there’s a theory that more available housing meant that more people felt comfortable expanding their families. 


Max Fisher: Well, that makes sense. If you’re going to have a kid, better to have a place to put them. But wait, that’s not right. There are plenty of places in the world with cramped housing situations and high birth rates. Also, if it were housing, then you would expect people to have more kids as they made more money. But you just told me that the opposite happens. 


Erin Ryan: Exactly. So it couldn’t be housing alone. Then there’s this theory that modern appliances gave women more time to take care of babies, since they were spending less time on housework. 


Max Fisher: That seems kind of feasible, and it would be cool to rename the Greatest Generation something a little less aggrandizing, like Generation Frigidaire. 


Erin Ryan: I like how that rolls off the tongue. Except people without appliances like the Amish were still having more babies in the 1930s. 


Max Fisher: Oh, this is so strange. Like, no explanation fits. Could it be that fewer babies were dying during their first years of life? Like better infant care? 


Erin Ryan: Well, you’re getting warmer. The answer that seems to be the most feasible is that in the US and Europe, childbirth was getting much less dangerous for women. 


Max Fisher: Oh, that makes a ton of sense. I would also become a lot more game for a painful, nine month long medical ordeal if I thought it had become less likely to kill me. 


Erin Ryan: Between 1936 and 1956, the maternal mortality rate went down across the U.S. and Europe. In the U.S., it went down by 94%. 


Max Fisher: Whoa. 


Erin Ryan: Pregnancy went from the personal safety equivalent of joyriding in a Ford Pinto to a weekend trip to the grocery store in a Volvo. 


Max Fisher: So the baby boom was more a product of advancements in public health practices than postwar optimism. 


Erin Ryan: Exactly. 


Max Fisher: And make childbirth less deadly was one way to decrease the cost of birth. 


Erin Ryan: Kind of a gimme, especially if you’ve got a body that can get pregnant. 


Max Fisher: Man, it is so telling that we as a culture have completely ignored this very important and in retrospect, very obvious explanation for the baby boom. And have instead built our entire generational history around war good, war make babies. 


Erin Ryan: But anyway, what we’re dealing with today isn’t an exact analog to what was happening then. 


Max Fisher: It’s not? What do you mean?


Erin Ryan: Yeah. You can only solve the bulk of the maternal mortality rate once. 


Max Fisher: Oh [?]. 


Erin Ryan: And once the 1950s were over, the birth rate started its determined march downward again. Turns out, making birth less dangerous wasn’t a sustainable sell. 


Max Fisher: And that drop would have also coincided with rising incomes and rising education, which you said drives down birth rates. And it also coincided with a big wave of social activism. 


Erin Ryan: Including second wave feminism, which increased opportunities for middle class American women to have better access to education and employment outside of the home. 


Max Fisher: And as women have more choices, they choose to have children less. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah, that’s one of those facts that really punctures the old nostalgia balloon. [laughter] Many women only choose to have children because they perceive it as the only choice they can make. 


Max Fisher: That feels like it helps explain why increasing opportunities tends to especially drive down the birth rate among teenagers. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah. Back to our timeline, though. The birth rate in the US bottomed out in 1976 at 1.74 births per woman. 


Max Fisher: Wow. 


Erin Ryan: Then it perked back up, hovering right around two births per woman replacement rate until the Great Recession, when it started to drop and hasn’t recovered. 


Max Fisher: Which brings us to our big question why has it proven so hard for any government facing this sort of sustained decline in the birth rate, to push it back up? 


Erin Ryan: Because they’ve tried a lot. [music break]




Max Fisher: This is the point in the story where I need a giant True Detective Season one style garage wall of suspected causes and connections. And so to map that wall out for me, I called up Jennifer Sciubba, a demographer and the president of the World Population Bureau. 


Erin Ryan: She sounds pretty qualified to help us out here. 


Max Fisher: Jennifer brought up a really interesting point. To put it simply, having children is expensive and not just or even primarily in the money sense of being expensive. 


[clip of Jennifer Sciubba] If you ask people, they’ll say, we would like to wait until we hit certain milestones in our lives. Could be post graduate education or a job that pays a certain amount, a promotion. Owning your own home. Those things matter. But even when those things are satisfied, that doesn’t guarantee somebody is then going to have a child or go from one to two. And that’s because those aren’t the only reasons why. And I think we all know this anecdotally. Anybody who’s listening would think about maybe their own lives or think about friends who seemingly have it all financially, and then they’re like, yeah, but I really want to take that trip to Patagonia next year, so it’s just not the right time for us. And so these postmodern values are coming into play here. I think everybody makes their own calculation that put the bar in a different place for themselves. But at some point you say, oh, I’d rather not have another one, because these are some things I’d rather do with my time and my money. 


Erin Ryan: Expensive can mean an uncomplicated hospital birth can cost close to $30,000, or it can mean I’d rather not give up the life I currently have to devote all my free time to looking after a kid. 


Max Fisher: Yeah, that also makes the issue a complicated one to address though. 


Erin Ryan: Because the way to convince more people to make a choice is to increase the perceived benefit of the choice, or to lower the cost of the choice, or both. 


Max Fisher: And in this case, that is a hard thing to make policy around. 


Erin Ryan: But that hasn’t stopped governments around the world from trying their best. Some have taken a carrot approach and others have taken a stick approach. Where should I start, Max? 


Max Fisher: I’m guessing the stick is much less pleasant, so let’s get that one out of the way. 


Erin Ryan: All right, stick it is. So in the 1960s, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu instituted decree 770, a brutal policy designed to increase the birth rate. Abortion was totally banned. Birth control was banned in most cases. 


Max Fisher: Wow. 


Erin Ryan: Secret police monitored hospitals for women who were trying to skirt these laws. 


Max Fisher: Oh my God. I know a lot of stuff gets compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, but this sounds very Handmaid’s Tale. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah. Fun fact Margaret Atwood deeply researched decree 770 and its aftermath as she wrote that book. 


Max Fisher: That’s not very fun, actually. 


Erin Ryan: But it is a fact. [laughter] Decree 770 quote worked for a few years. The birth rate in Romania went up to nearly four children per woman. But it didn’t take long for people to figure out ways around it. And the policy was devastating to Romanians, especially women and children. 


Max Fisher: So Ceaușescu canceled it right away, right? 


Erin Ryan: No. The policy was in place for decades, even though it didn’t work, and a lot of people died and many more suffered permanent physical and mental damage as a result. 


Max Fisher: So raising the cost of not having children by criminalizing abortion or birth control doesn’t work. That is not what the American pro-life movement has led me to believe. 


Erin Ryan: Here’s another fact that is not fun. Banning or restricting abortion does not increase the birth rate, either. Since Roe v Wade was overturned in the U.S., the number of abortions has increased and the birth rate has decreased. 


Max Fisher: Huh? Have babies or else is not a good way to get people to have more babies it turns out. 


Erin Ryan: No, no it sure isn’t. Even in a country with a total abortion ban like El Salvador, the birth rate is only 1.8 children per woman. 


Max Fisher: Wow. 


Erin Ryan: Women desperate to not be pregnant will figure out a way to not be pregnant. 


Max Fisher: Wow. Yep. Seems like total failure. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah. More recently, a conservative government in Poland enacted a near-total abortion ban that was both unpopular and unsuccessful. The birth rate in Poland continues to be one of the lowest in Europe. I think it’s around 1.30. 


Max Fisher: Whoa! 


Erin Ryan: And voters ousted the conservatives in favor of a centrist coalition last year. 


Max Fisher: Okay, let’s get to the carrots. Certainly, you catch more babies with honey than you do with vinegar, as I like to say. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah, that is how the saying goes. Unfortunately, offering more incentives to people to have kids hasn’t proven to be a long term solution anywhere. 


Max Fisher: Huh. 


Erin Ryan: Germany, for example, had one of the lowest birth rates in Europe from the mid 1970s onward until the German government decided to take some drastic steps. 


Max Fisher: Every new baby goes home with a giant custom beer stein, free David Hasselhoff concert tickets? 


Erin Ryan: That would probably boost the birth rate, and the Hasselhoff thing would probably work. 


Max Fisher: It wouldn’t hurt. 


Erin Ryan: Uh. The government dramatically increased benefits to parents, a year of paid parental leave per parent, which can be used until the child is three. Child care in Germany is heavily subsidized, so parents who send their kids to state daycares sometimes only pay about €150 or less–


Max Fisher: Huh. 


Erin Ryan: –per month. 


Max Fisher: Wow. 


Erin Ryan: And every child over the age of one is guaranteed a spot in one of the public daycares, so no jockeying for a place on the waitlist like parents in the US. 


Max Fisher: Wow. So like the dream wish list of socialist pro NATO policies. Plus Germany, like a lot of Western Europe, has pretty good health care. Like pretty close to universal. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah, it costs like €10 to see a doctor there. It’s wild.


Max Fisher: I am anticipating that the word that comes next is but.


Erin Ryan: Yes, but. But despite all these efforts, the birth rate in Germany has only nudged up to around 1.5 to 1.60. 


Max Fisher: Whoa. 


Erin Ryan: And in the last two years, the rate has fallen again. 


Max Fisher: Huh? So even when people say, hey, I can’t have kids because it’s too expensive and I don’t get enough support, and then the government comes in and says, okay, here you go. Here is money and government support. Then people do not actually have more kids. 


Erin Ryan: And Germany isn’t even the country that is doing the most for parents. In Austria, paid parental leave is 2.5 years long. 


Max Fisher: Wow. 


Erin Ryan: In the Netherlands, an assigned nurse will visit mothers at home after they return from the hospital to help them in the days and weeks after giving birth. Swedish families are entitled to 480 days of paid family leave, to be split evenly between the parents. 


Max Fisher: Holy shit, 480 days. That is way better than the US guaranteed parental leave of um let’s see. So I’m just checking my math here, oh it’s zero. Yep. 480 beats zero days. 


Erin Ryan: Yes. And other countries are straight up bribing people to have kids. Hungary is offering newly married couples $30,000 loans that are forgiven if the couple has three children. 


Max Fisher: Nice. 


Erin Ryan: Russia has offered a payment of about $7,000 to couples with two or more children. 


Max Fisher: And how well is all that working?


Erin Ryan: It’s not. Russia’s birthrate is at the lowest it’s been in decades. Hungary’s birthrate has risen since Viktor Orban took power, but it’s still below the dismal 1.6 we’ve been bemoaning in the US. 


Max Fisher: And we have got to talk about the big one here, which is South Korea. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah, South Korea is fully in crisis mode. In 2020, more people died than were born. 


Max Fisher: You know, that doesn’t sound good. 


Erin Ryan: No. The birth rate in South Korea is under 0.8 per woman. 


Max Fisher: Whoa. 


Erin Ryan: This despite the fact that over the last 16 years, the government has poured more than $200 billion into trying to get the birth rate back up. More than a third of young women in South Korea have no desire to have children at all. 


Max Fisher: Okay, so why don’t South Koreans want to have kids? 


Erin Ryan: I mean, to put it simply, they’ve determined that the cost is too high and the benefits are too low to justify the decision. In South Korean culture, wives are often expected to care for everybody in their family and their husband’s family and provide all of the domestic labor, in addition to earning half of the household income. 


Max Fisher: Okay, that doesn’t sound like a super attractive deal. 


Erin Ryan: No and no five star luxury postpartum suite or monthly cash stipend from the government can make up for that. And then it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. More people who don’t want kids means it’s more socially acceptable to join them, which means there are a few workplaces that are kid friendly because there are fewer kids. 


Max Fisher: And that brings us to the United States. 


Erin Ryan: Yes, while our birthrate may not have reached a crisis point, it’s still pretty worrying. 


Max Fisher: I know there have been some measures on this from the Biden administration, like extending paid parental leave to 3 million federal employees and some big tax credits for child care. 


Erin Ryan: But we also have dismal parental leave, health care, and child care in this country. Here’s a fun story. When I was 20 weeks pregnant with my first kid, I put her on a daycare waitlist and we are still on the waitlist. And it’s been three years. 


Max Fisher: Oof. Although we should say it’s not clear this is why the US birth rate is low. If it were, you’d expect a higher birth rate among people who can afford things like private daycare or gold plated health plans. But you actually see the opposite. It was like you were saying earlier, Americans actually have fewer kids as their financial situation improves. 


Erin Ryan: In the US, despite the fact that things like national paid leave and subsidies to lower the cost of child care are overwhelmingly popular, we still can’t seem to get them done, though. To borrow a quote from The Simpsons, we’ve tried nothing. We’re all out of ideas, man. 


Max Fisher: Okay, not to pour cold water on this, but we’ve seen both reward and punishment fail to move the needle elsewhere. 


Erin Ryan: That’s true. And that brings me to my final point about why the birth rate is such a stubborn thing to fix. Because no amount of policymaking can bring down certain costs associated with it. 


Max Fisher: Oh, you mean like physical and emotional costs? 


Erin Ryan: Yes, Max, that’s exactly what I mean. You’ve been around me for these last several months. I am currently incredibly pregnant. 


Max Fisher: Wait, what? 


Erin Ryan: Yeah. And what have I spent the last several months doing? 


Max Fisher: Oh, complaining. 


Erin Ryan: Complaining. Exactly. Pregnancy, even easy pregnancies objectively suck ass. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. 


Erin Ryan: We are biologically terrible at making and birthing children. Our producer, Emma Illick-Frank, called up Cat Bohannon, author of the book Eve, to give us more insight into just how bad we are at reproducing as a species. 


[clip of Cat Bohannon] We evolved to walk upright, which narrowed the pelvic opening, and we simultaneously started getting bigger and bigger heads and bigger and bigger shoulders. And so now our situation is we’re trying to squeeze a watermelon out of a lemon sized hole. And if you’ve met fruit, it’s a problem, right? So that’s the one big reason that our birth sucks. But the more pervasive reason, actually, the even more dangerous reason, is that our placentas are really invasive. Um. They penetrate the mother’s bloodstream. So that is knock on effects on our like immune system, how vulnerable we are to certain kinds of infections when we’re pregnant. It has knock on effects for like, the kind of bleeding scenarios, that hemorrhage thing that might happen during birth or more importantly, during the postpartum. So like compared to other primates, compared to most mammals, we actually just suck at this. 


Max Fisher: I am never going to look at watermelons and lemons the same way again, ever again. 


Erin Ryan: [laughing] Okay. So there’s no way around the biological cost of childbearing on the mother’s body. Every method of extracting a child from the womb is painful and complicated, and C-sections are one of the most–


Max Fisher: Yeah. 


Erin Ryan: –intense abdominal surgeries. The physical changes to the body can be permanent and irreversible. 


Max Fisher: Okay, but what about reproductive assistance technology? 


Erin Ryan: So IVF is a great tool for people who want to extend their fertility for a few years, or for LGBTQ people who otherwise couldn’t conceive children. But it’s expensive. Not everybody can access it, and it doesn’t always work. 


Max Fisher: I am so sorry to go full Silicon Valley tech guy here. What if we could just grow babies in jars or test tubes or really, any glass vessel would do. 


Erin Ryan: Are you disrupting the uterus? 


Max Fisher: Maybe. 


Erin Ryan: [laugh] Pregnancy is one of the least understood biological processes humans undergo. But one thing we do know is that our technology to replicate it is pretty far away. 


[clip of Cat Bohannon] We are nowhere near having a truly functional, non harmful artificial womb that can go from top to bottom of a human pregnancy. We don’t even have that for like a mouse pregnancy. The entire female body in a mammal is the gestation engine. It’s not just the uterus. When you have a placenta that’s hot docking into the mother’s body in this way, it’s not the case that you just kind of lay eggs internally and have a nest in there, right? Your whole body is pregnant when you’re pregnant, not just your uterus. So to invent an artificial womb, we basically have to invent an entire artificial female person. 


Max Fisher: So the big problem with artificial wombs, she’s saying, is that even if you could somehow make an artificial womb, that’s actually not even close to everything  you need to do this. 


Erin Ryan: Yes. Currently, reproductive technology can help extend viability for babies born too early, but it can’t eliminate the biological cost of childbearing on women. Somebody’s still got to get pregnant, and somehow that baby’s got to come out. 


Max Fisher: Plus, once babies are born, even if you have all of the well-compensated help in the world, you’re still a parent. 


Erin Ryan: Right. Kids need you. Taking care of them, and being a parent takes an emotional toll and represents a permanent lifestyle change, especially on women. You don’t get to just be a mom or dad sometimes. Once you have a kid, you’re that child’s parent until the day you die. 


Max Fisher: Plus, parenting has become a lot more intensive than it once was. In the 1980s, there were PSA’s on TV reminding parents to check in on their kids. 


[clip of 1980s PSA Television ad] It’s 10 p.m. do you know where your children are? 


Erin Ryan: [laughter] And now the children of that generation are all mentally ill. 


Max Fisher: [?] Checking in, and the pendulum has swung the other way now. Parents spend way more time with their children than they ever have in the past. 


Erin Ryan: Well, another not so fun fact, mothers who work full time spend as much time on parenting in 2024 as stay at home moms did in the 1970s. 


Max Fisher: Wow. Okay, I feel like this illuminates something really important for me because I know in surveys, a lot of people who did decide to have kids say they actually would have preferred to have more. I always wondered, like, okay, so why didn’t they? And this is why. They’re spending so much more time on each child and they are having them later in life. There’s simply not enough time in the day, and there are not enough days in the year and not enough years in the time in which they’re having kids for most parents to have more than one or two. And to parent them as intensively as we all parent now. Add on to that that nearly half of Americans under 50 now say they don’t want to have kids at all, and it’s a lot easier to see why the birth rate is so hard to raise. Like, Erin, I hate to be glib, but can I propose a simpler solution to the problem of too few young people in rich countries? 


Erin Ryan: Go for it. 


Max Fisher: Migration. 


Erin Ryan: Interesting concept. Go on. 


Max Fisher: Okay, that’s the thing. There are many countries in the world with high birth rates, mostly in the global South. A lot of people in those countries would like to work or live in rich countries like the United States, which at this moment very badly needs more working age people to supplant the declining birth rate. So these are two problems that solve each other. No?


Erin Ryan: Yeah. And all we’d have to do is eliminate centuries of racism and xenophobia. 


Max Fisher: How hard could that really be? Though, we know that once migrants move to richer countries and have kids, that second generation will have a birth rate that is more in line with the low national average. 


Erin Ryan: Because more opportunities and higher incomes equals fewer children. 


Max Fisher: Exactly. So the solution isn’t a one off generation of immigration, but rather sustained indefinite immigration. 


Erin Ryan: And that might even only work for a while. Globally, the birth rate is hovering around 2.3 and trending downward. So here’s the center of the big tangled knot that is the so-called birth rate problem. Birth rates rise and fall, but often for reasons that can’t be predicted or controlled, governments can pour massive amounts of resources into trying to increase the birth rate. Generous paid leave. Child friendly infrastructure. Accessible and affordable childcare. They still can’t eliminate some of the costs of having children. They can’t reduce the biological cost of pregnancy and birth on the human body. They can’t reduce the emotional demands that children make of their parents. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. 


Erin Ryan: They can’t make people feel good enough about the future to want to reproduce. In countries with long traditions of misogyny, they can’t make having men around materially improve the lives of women. 


Max Fisher: Look, as a 39 year old without kids, on an individual level, I get it. I get the decision not to have kids. At the same time, as someone who has seen what it looks like in a place like Japan, when birth rates are too low for too long. I do hope that we as a species figure this one out. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah, and to all the sea turtles and timberwolves listening to this episode, congratulations on what sounds like will be a peaceful next few centuries. Now we leave you with Kansas City Chiefs kicker and masculinity expert Harrison Butker with some thoughts on what women should be doing with their–


Max Fisher: Yeesh. 


Erin Ryan: –bodies and wombs. 


[clip of Harrison Butker] I think it is you, the women who have had the most diabolical lies told to you. Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world, but I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world. I can tell you that my beautiful wife, Isabel, would be the first to say that her life truly started when she began living her vocation as a wife and as a mother. I’m on the stage today and able to be the man I am, because I have a wife who leans into her vocation. 


Erin Ryan: [laugh] Did she teach him how to kick? 


Max Fisher: [laugh]How We Got Here is written and hosted by me, Max Fisher, and by Erin Ryan. 


Erin Ryan: It’s produced by Austin Fisher. Emma Illick-Frank is our associate producer. 


Max Fisher: Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show. 


Erin Ryan: Jordan Cantor sound engineers the show. Audio support from Kyle Seglin, Charlotte Landes, and Vasilis Fotopoulos. 


Max Fisher: Production support from Adriene Hill, Leo Duran, Erica Morrison, Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf.


Erin Ryan: And a special thank you to What a Day’s talented hosts Tre’vell Anderson, Priyanka Aribindi, Josie Duffy Rice, and Juanita Tolliver for welcoming us to the family.